Prologue

Image The Cosmiques Arête, Aiguille du Midi in The French Alps The snow slope sweeps up ahead of us, gently at first, then more steeply where it passes between rocky outcrops. Above, our route joins the crest of the ridge and disappears from view, hidden by the projecting rocks.

On all sides the vast mountain chains of the European Alps fill the horizon – range upon range of jagged snowy peaks receding in lines into the distance. Closer at hand, all around us, rise the incredible icy spires of the Chamonix Aiguilles, fairy-tale peaks that are every mountaineer’s dream.

‘OK,’ says Julio, ‘You ready? We go,’ and he sets off up the slope, vigorously kicking steps in the snow with each swing of his cramponed boots. As soon as the length of rope that joins us comes tight I follow on, placing my feet carefully in the steps he has made. Third on the rope, Manu climbs behind me, patient and controlled.

Before long I’m getting hot and I start to sweat. The sun, which has been hiding behind thick clouds for the past few days, now burns fiercely in the sky and I feel its dazzling rays beating on me from all directions, reflected in the pristine snow. Julio, who does everything with a manner of urgency, sets a fast pace and I’m soon struggling to keep up. The sweat trickles down my brow and into my eyes and my breathing becomes laboured, my lungs heavy in the thin air. I know that we’ve got all day and there’s no particular hurry so I allow the rope to come tight and shout out, ‘Lentement! Plus lentement!’ ‘Slow down!’

For a while Julio relents, but it isn’t long before he is straining at the leash again.

Manu laughs. ‘Julio, he loves the mountains. When he sees a mountain, he is like a dog that sees a rabbit. You can’t stop him.’

So I resign myself to a day of being pulled along in Julio’s wake.

The ridge we are climbing is called the Cosmiques Arête, a 1,000-foot-long knife-edge of snowy rocks and ice perched dizzyingly high above the French mountain resort town of Chamonix. The difficulties aren’t great but the situation is superb and the interest is sustained throughout the length of the climb. The route finishes on the 3,842m summit of the Aiguille du Midi, a peak accessible by cable car, which adds to the climb’s popularity. But today we have the arête to ourselves.

The climbing soon becomes more intricate and I have to use my axe to pull myself up over short bulges and steep sections of ice. On the crest of the arête we weave round massive perched blocks of granite, like gendarmes guarding the narrow ridge. The drop on either side is breathtaking.

At one point the way ahead is blocked by a deep cleft slicing through the ridge. We make an abseil down into the frozen depths of the cleft, then begin the climb back out the other side. I’m finding the climbing quite awkward now and have to use my feet with care and precision. I jam the pick of my axe into a thin rock crack and torque for purchase, holding my breath as I pull. When I swing the axe into a patch of hard ice the pick slams in to the hilt with a satisfying ‘Thock’.

Eventually we come to a wide, level section of ridge, and take the opportunity to have a rest and a bite to eat. I swing my rucksack off my back, push it into the snow and sit down on it. This is a good chance to dry off my legs. The sweat is getting quite uncomfortable.

‘Manu,’ I ask, ‘could you give me a hand here, please?’

Manu unzips the lower part of my overtrousers and pushes them back to reveal the carbon fibre and titanium of my artificial legs. With a click of the release button the left leg comes free and Manu pulls it off and plants it beside me in the snow. He does the same with the right leg, then he helps me peel back the inner socks and silicone liners until my bare stumps are exposed, flushed with heat and dripping with sweat. The relief is enormous and I stretch out and enjoy the feeling of cool air circulating round my hot stumps.

Normally I would take my legs off myself – I like to be as independent as possible – but my right arm, round ended and handless, is firmly strapped into the socket of my specially modified ice axe. My left arm, like the other three limbs, is also a truncated stump and is gloved up to the elbow so right now I am more or less helpless, reliant on the assistance of Julio and Manu.

I don’t mind though. In the three years since I became a quadruple amputee I have come to accept that I can’t do everything for myself all the time. I’m just thankful for all the things I can still do. Constantly being indebted to people isn’t such a bad thing either. It brings you closer, builds bonds.

I look up and my gaze travels across the distant mountains, rows of pointed white peaks, like teeth, lining the horizon. Instinctively my eyes find my mountain, Les Droites. I scan its serrated summit ridge, settling on the slight dip of the Brèche des Droites, an almost insignificant break in the ridge that will always remain a place of utmost importance in my mind.

In a flash I am back there, clinging to that tiny ledge hewn from ice, hard as granite, the Siberian wind rifling through, piercing the many layers of clothing to my very heart. Jamie is beside me, battling with the driving snow that falls in blankets, digging with all his might.

And Julio is there too, forcing hot tea between my cracked lips, cutting my rope with his sharp knife, signalling to the helicopter which pitches and rolls like a small boat in high seas.

Then my eyes travel down from the brèche, trace out the thin ribbon of ice that marks the descent route, a relatively easy descent, down to the glacier below. The descent we never made.

I will always be there, stranded at that terrible brèche, with the ice and the wind and the snow. With Julio. With Jamie, the other Jamie – Jamie Fisher – who is gone now forever.

How did this happen to me? Why? What strange twists of fate have taken me from being the bold, independent, carefree climber I was then to become the bizarre individual I am now, without hands, without feet, intent on proving to myself and to the world that I can go on as before? Could things have turned out any different? Questions I have asked myself a thousand times, ask myself a thousand times a day. Now, back in the mountains that so nearly cost me my life, I am searching for answers.

Today the brèche smiles at me serenely in the sunshine. On a day like this it’s hard to imagine those desperate scenes of two and a half years ago. Manu laughs as he helps me put my legs back on. Julio scuttles off along the ridge, stamping out a broad track as he goes, till the rope comes tight again.

I stand up, wobble slightly as my stumps settle into the prosthetic legs, and we climb on.

 

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